Posted on 1st Sep 2021 by John Rosie
John Rosie rediscovers the contribution made by pioneering British jazz drummer Sheelagh Pearson and looks at her career alongside that of some other notable female drummers.
Whilst in the process of updating our online interview collection, we have been adding short biographies of more than 200 jazz artists. This has been a labour of love that has allowed us to revisit old friends, learn something new and, in some cases, make new acquaintances. One such revelation was Sheelagh Pearson.
As one of Britain’s foremost drummers during the post-war era, Pearson was a pioneer for aspiring women musicians during a period when jazz performance was a male preserve.
Her contemporary was the American drummer and band leader Viola Smith, who died just last year aged 107. She performed from the 1920s onwards and in the 1930s was promoted as “the fastest girl drummer in the world”. In 1942 Smith famously wrote in Down Beat magazine advocating the inclusion of women in the big bands of the day. Despite perhaps greater touch and technique, Pearson never enjoyed Smith’s higher profile as a more flamboyant performer.
Another contemporary drummer was the “Queen of the Drums”, Pauline Braddy, who was one of the first African-American female drummers. Braddy was both successful and internationally famous in the 1940s.
With men fighting overseas, World War II saw female jazz musicians given the opportunity to perform in the UK in what had been an almost exclusively male domain. This included bands such as the BBC’s all-female house orchestra led by Ivy Benson.
Born in Westminster, London, Pearson and her family moved south to the small market town of Tonbridge, in Kent. As an 18 year old, she played accordion in a local dance band but also started to learn the drums. She moved permanently to drums in 1948 after accepting work in the all-female dance band of the Mecca Ballroom in Edinburgh.
The Gracie Coles Orchestra
After a year in Edinburgh, Pearson played in the orchestra pit for a pantomime season in Devon before taking a nightclub job in Gibraltar. Returning to the UK in 1952 as an established performer, she had two offers: one was from the Ivy Benson Band; the other was from trumpeter Gracie Cole, who had left Benson to form her own all-female orchestra. Saxophonist Johnny Dankworth wrote for Cole’s band, and that swung it for Pearson who preferred the ‘hot’ sound of Dankworth’s arrangements.
“I liked his arrangements, so I chose Gracie’s band. It was my first big band. Ivy and Gracie’s bands were the only two that knew what they were doing. I was thrilled to bits.”
In 1954 Sheelagh Pearson was voted “The best girl drummer in the UK” in the Melody Maker Poll.
Sheelagh Pearson with the Lena Kidd Quartet
Pearson joined the Lena Kidd quartet in 1956 after Kidd had played in both Benson’s and Cole’s bands. She joined the Dinah Dee All Girls Band a year later, staying with her until 1960.
The Dinah Dee All Girls Band
Pearson played in all-female orchestras, but had shared the stage with jazz greats including Count Basie as well as British stars Johnny Dankworth and Ronnie Scott. But her biggest thrill was playing with the Gracie Cole Band.
“The Gracie Cole Big Band was really something.”
Another female jazz drummer all but forgotten by the British public were it not for her performances in the 2020 television competition Britain's Got Talent, is Crissy Lee. Lee was yet another Ivy Benson Orchestra alumnus and led her own big band.
National Jazz Archive Trustee Roger Cotterrell recalls:
"I saw her [Crissy Lee] and heard her play at the Vortex in 2018 and was so knocked out by the experience that I made this diary note:
Thursday, 15 February 2018 - Wonderful evening at the Vortex, Dalston; went on my own to hear the Ivy Benson Reunion Band… Very much a women’s gig; few men in the audience…. Next to me was a table of women ‘of a certain age’, several of whom turned out to be ex-members of the Benson band.
Among them 4’10” Crissy Lee: before she got on the stand I could have visualised her as a little Essex grandma wheeling a shopping trolley. When she got behind the drums she sounded like Art Blakey, ferocious and sensitive by turns, with spot-on accuracy, powerful dynamics, total un-showiness….
Crissy talked about Ivy Benson from the stage:
‘‘Lady Be Good’ was our signature tune. You had to be! She was strict. If you weren’t on stage when the curtain opened they’d start playing without you. That applied to the drums, too! We were chaperoned. The band divided between the drinkers and the rest. I never drank."
Big band jazz was on the wane in the 1960s and Sheelagh Pearson retired in 1963 after 12 years of touring, to set up her own business. After various careers, including working in the Netherlands for 25 years as an office manager, Pearson moved to Sidmouth, Devon, in 1993. She joined the Town Band as a percussionist, finally retiring from music in 2004, though she still lives in Sidmouth.
Like many female jazz musicians, Sheelagh Pearson’s contribution as a pioneer and jazz artist has been under-played and largely ignored. Hopefully we can help redress the balance by making her story better known.
You can also read Sheelagh Pearson’s biography in her own words as part of our Interviews – Jazz Artists collection, or browse through over 200 biographies and many more interviews, most by journalist Les Tomkins for Crescendo magazine.
The photographs of Sheelagh Pearson were originally posted on the Jazz Professional website now being maintained by the National Jazz Archive.